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Three Types of Audiences

This post is #2 in a longer series of articles based on a presentation I gave to the Public Relations Insitute of Australia on “How To Make Your Audience Listen Better.” The Introduction to the series is here.

It’s easy – especially if you’re nervous – to look at your audience and think they’re a negative mass of one. In reality though, they comprises three different types of audience.

I’ve learnt this as I’ve got more experienced. They aren’t as scary when you understand who you’re talking to, more so when you understand what value they can offer to you.

Audience May be Different, but They’re Always the Same

Different personalities, interests, backgrounds, expectations, etc. But they also have things in common, particularly when grouped by the most important question:  What’s your purpose for presenting?

When you look at your audience through the prism of your objective, you have three types of audiences:

  • The decision maker
  • The detractors
  • The coaches
The Decision Maker

The Decision Maker is the person who will say yes or no to your objective or recommendation. Hypothetically, the entire audience could be Decision Makers, but it’s more likely only a few are, if not one specific person.

The key to winning agreement from the Decision Maker is to ensure you both have the same objective, and that whatever recommendation or solution you offer will not only achieve that objective, but also eliminate, minimise or marginalise the issue at the same time.

Good Decision Makers tend to want precise and succinct responses, if not a clear call to action and plan. More so, if you don’t know what this person wants, it’s possible you won’t deliver.

Get to the DM as quickly as possible. If you can’t get to them directly (because of hierarchy, status or geography), identify one (or both) of the two remaining types of audiences.

The Detractor

The Detractor listens and responds to your ideas negatively. Much like a Devil’s Advocate, they believe their value lies in reviewing recommendations to highlight its problems, to demonstrate to the Decision Maker(s) – publicly or privately – that they have the DM’s (or the organisation’s) interests at heart.

They protect. Not only the Decision Maker but the organisation as a whole, if not their own personal ego and role in the organisation.

Detractors generally come in two types:

  • Influencers – they can say no, but they can’t say yes (that’s the Decision Maker’s)
  • Gatekeepers – they keep you away from information and people, particularly the decision maker.
People often fear the Detractors for the wrong reasons.

They perceive them as roadblocks, as the person might say ‘No’ in an aggressive or dismissive way. Many times, they also fear the Detractor for personal reasons.

However, good Detractors can also offer something positive, if not invaluable. The good ones can tell you precisely what’s wrong with your argument, hypothesis or recommendation. Remember good Detractors want to protect the organisation against risk, future problems, politics internally you may not be aware of, or even bad or poorly thought-out ideas.

If you can put aside your personal bias and understand the weaknesses in your proposal – and then fix those problems – you not only make a more solid presentation, you gain self-confidence.

Gatekeepers are their own breed. Why they are so protective is the hint you need to decide how to work with them. Two things will help: rapport and trust.

The Coach

In contrast to the negative Detractor, the Coach listens and responds to your ideas positively. The opposite of the Detractor, the Coach dissects ideas to see its opportunities, benefits and good news. Like a traditional mentoring ‘coach,’ they prefer to build up ideas by improving what and how you say your points of view. They too can be critical, but their feedback tends not to provoke negative reactions. They want to improve and invest in both you and your ideas.

No surprise, people flock to the Coach because they give psychological support.

They make you feel good. They prop up your self-confidence. It’s like a metaphorical hug. Good Coaches tell you precisely why your argument, hypothesis or recommendation is right, why it will work, why the evidence is appropriate, etc. This type of audience helps you build your self-esteem.

I’ve found that their good vibes don’t always trail you to the actual presentation. Yes, it’s good to know what is right about your presentation, but opportunities don’t stand in the way of most people.

To make the Coach’s input most valuable to you, know why something is good precisely from the Decision Maker’s point-of-view. This will be particularly helpful if you yourself have too much negative Self-Talk.

Two More Things to Consider

There are two other important points about Detractors vs. Coaches.

  • When a Decision Maker wants advice or counsel, do they turn to the Detractor or the Coach?

Typically, it’s the Detractor, so that’s another reason why to get the Detractors on your side well before your presentation, not at the meeting itself. But don’t discount the Coaches to give you context.

  • If you can get the Detractor on your side, by using their critical points to improve your recommendation, you often turn what originally was a negative person into a positive, influential Coach.  I’d argue they’re an even better Coach than a “regular” one.

How have you dealt with these different types of audiences?  Is there any other type to throw into the discussion?  


This is one in a series of articles about how to help your audience listen better, starting here.


Side note:

You might recognize these audiences in the SWOT analysis.

Detractors tend to be best articulating Weaknesses and Threats.

Coaches tend to be best articulating Strengths and Opportunities.

If you think about what your audiences can do to help your presentation (even before they listen to your ideas), you can better understand and leverage your relationship and shared knowledge with them and others.

Most important, by leveraging the Detractors and Coaches to be influential to the Decision Maker, you also are more effective at persuading and winning over the person who has direct impact on your business objective.

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Three Types of Audiences